Why are Breton speakers protesting about street names?

by Merryn Davies-Deacon

Speaking and promoting minoritised languages often involves struggles against the nation state. In some cases, these struggles can be on a local level. In Brittany, one especially current issue is the “francisation”—Frenchification—of place names. A protest was organised in September in Telgruc-sur-Mer, a small town in the far west of Brittany, an area where the vast majority of names come from Breton, including the name Telgruc itself.

The protest was sparked by the recent decision to build 32 new streets in Telgruc and give them all French names, an act defended by the town’s mayor. Protestors also pointed out that as well as being linguistically different from other local place names, the new streets were thematically inconsistent: instead of local features or uses of the land, they would be themed around different species of birds. The decision to implement these new street names was made despite the prior existence of Breton place names for the lieux-ditssmall hamlets—that formerly existed in the same area.

So why did this plan cause such outrage? Speakers of minoritised languages often feel strongly about place names in their languages: they’re a way of indicating local cultural specificity, even for those who don’t actually speak the language, and can inform us about the role or appearance that an area had hundreds of years ago. Some people may be inspired by them to learn more about their local heritage, and even to learn the language itself. Here in Northern Ireland, the prevalence of Irish place names in all six counties shows that the language need not be the preserve of one particular community: it’s a common heritage that everyone shares. Place names are also useful indicators of how languages develop, which can be invaluable for reconstructing languages of which only patchy records exist. In Cornwall, where I’m from, changes in the forms of place names show how the Cornish language gradually receded from east to west: the name Bodmin (“dwelling of monks”) in the east has a d in a position where we would expect an s in even quite early forms of Cornish, indicating that the language probably ceased to be spoken in that area early on. On the other hand, the name Penzance (“holy headland”) in the west shows that Cornish was still being spoken here by the time the s sound had changed to a z, a much later development.

Controversial efforts to abandon Breton place names are not new. Ten years ago, the French post office advised the use of French names exclusively, claiming that features of Breton such as the c’h character made it difficult for machines to interpret addresses on envelopes. But, as a representative of the Breton language office said at the time, “il faut améliorer la machine, pas changer la société”—you have to improve the machine, not change society. When advanced technology is easy to create and implement, it can’t be used as an excuse to deny minorities their linguistic rights: instead, technological development needs to focus on solutions that can be applied to every language.

The French attitude to minoritised languages can seem hypocritical, particularly when the French state has typically been keen to keep its own national language free of outside influence. In recent years, this has involved advising speakers to use terms such as “infox” instead of “fake news”, and “mot-dièse” instead of “hashtag”, in the perhaps impossible hope of reducing the influence of global English. But in this case, it is French that is eating away at the territory of other languages that are already in a much less privileged position.

This is an area where language policy can help. In Cornwall, regulations relating to new street names specifically state that planners are encouraged to give new streets Cornish names and ensure they refer to local features, connecting this to the UK’s recognition of Cornish under the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages, which encourages this kind of initiative. Breton, on the other hand, has no such protection, as France has not ratified the Charter. In many cases over the past few decades, France has made progress in recognising the value of its regional languages, but each step forward seems to be accompanied by a step back.

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